Poverty at home


by Ray Offenheiser

This article appeared in Politico on April 2, 2013.

As Washington careens through one headline-grabbing, self-imposed fiscal crisis after another, one in three Americans faces a daily crisis of poverty or low-wage jobs that is barely a topic of conversation in Congress or the media.

The richest 1 percent of the US population has more aggregate wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined. Yet one in three of us is struggling just to make ends meet. We now have levels of inequality usually associated with countries like South Africa or Nigeria. While unchecked public debt could pose a future economic threat, unthinking ‘across the board’ budget cuts today will have an immediate impact on the working poor, the near poor, and countless others fighting to keep their heads above water.

The relationship between national budget priorities and poverty and inequality are both American issues and global ones.

Oxfam has fought against poverty and economic injustice for 70 years in the world’s poorest nations.  Currently we operate on the ground in more than 90 countries and see extreme dichotomies between wealthy elites and the desperately poor in places from Sudan and India to Cambodia and Mexico. We see the ravages of poverty and the corrosive effect that gross inequality has on civil society and democracy, as well as how it stalls economic growth.

Growing inequality is a global concern. It was a major theme of the 2012 World Economic Forum and is being increasingly seen as a threat to national and global security. At the heart of this debate is the paradox of middle and lower income families bearing the bulk of the social and economic costs of volatile economic growth, while wages stagnate or decline, pensions disappear, and investments to broaden economic opportunity like health, education and social insurance are slashed. More and more, countries are faced with choices of  whether or how to make growth inclusive.

As a global development organization, Oxfam believes poverty is about power, not scarcity.  As Americans, we believe that our nation must lead.  Poverty and inequality, and the social exclusion they breed, are wrongs to be righted, whether they occur in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, or the United States.  Our nation has long presented itself to the world as the model of successful, inclusive growth that lifts millions into the middle class. While that was true during the decades after World War II, since the 1970s, the story has been very different. That is simply not the case today.

America’s poverty rate is now at its highest level in two generations. Contrary to the American Dream of broad-based upward mobility, the United States ranks 10th out 12 OECD countries in social mobility. In addition, our country has the highest proportion of low-wage workers of any developed country—people who work hard but earn less than $10.50 an hour and are barely able to make ends meet.

Poverty is the result of imbalances in power that privilege some and marginalize others. More than mere economics, poverty affects human rights. Because we believe that governments must protect and expand human rights, we further believe that while markets have a role to play in improving the livelihoods of marginalized populations, they must be guided by the public interest and held accountable by citizen oversight. Whether across the globe or here at home, nations and peoples must shape their own development.

Therefore, a government’s budget, like all public policy, should not only reflect our values, but be means to an end. Fiscal policies—public spending and taxes—should focus on investments in broadly shared prosperity. That is why Oxfam—which already has on-the-ground programs with farmworkers and in poor, coastal areas—is becoming more deeply involved in addressing poverty, the working poor, low wage jobs and inequality at the national level.

We are engaging a wide range of Americans—economists, activists, journalists, faith leaders, and others—shine a spotlight on the injustice of America’s inequalities. We are listening to the experiences and concerns of the poor, with the goal of bringing their voices to a national audience.

More than 100 million Americans—1 in 3 of us—live in or near poverty, struggling every day. We need a lively national conversation about how we can right this wrong.

Ending poverty must and will occur as a result of deliberate and equitable fiscal choices and policies– not blunt chopping instruments. This must be the overriding goal of our society and our budgets.

Ray Offenheiser is president of Oxfam America, a nonprofit international development organization. This article is part of an Oxfam initiative to focus greater attention on poverty and low-wage work in America.

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